149417842So you're running a startup, and you're just dying to get out there and start doing some marketing, because darn it all you've just got the best idea ever and you want the whole world to know how awesome you are and if you could just get some attention and some buzz, then you'd get some leads, and if you got some leads then you'd get some customers, and then your customers would tell everyone how great you are, and your business would explode and pretty soon you'd be on the cover of BusinessWeek.

Well, hold on.

Not so fast, says Drew Williams, a marketing guru and author of "Feed the Startup Beast: A 7-Step Guide to Big, Hairy, Outrageous Sales Growth." 

In a really good piece on Quartz, Williams says most startups shouldn't spend even a single dollar on marketing -- not until they take a good hard look at themselves and figure out if they really have anything worth bragging about. And the only people who can tell you that are your customers.

Here are the three questions he says you need to ask them:

  1. What should we stop doing?
  2. What should we keep doing?
  3. What should we start doing?

Painfully Honest

Williams tells the story of a design company he was hired to advise. The company had gone through a period of rapid growth but now things were flattening out. The CEO figured the answer was to pump some money into marketing.

The easy thing to do, of course, would be to take the money and do some marketing. But Williams recommended the company start by surveying customers. They found that only 33% of customers loved the company enough to refer them to a friend.

The others said they liked the company's design work but hated dealing with its billing department, which made a lot of mistakes.

The lesson: "If we’d charged ahead with a full-blown marketing campaign, the design company would have spent a lot of money exposing its weakness to a greater number of people," Williams writes.

In other words: those marketing dolllars wouldn't have helped, and in fact might have hurt the business.

Marketing Can't Overcome Mediocrity

Which brings up the subject of startups. Williams argues that marketing doesn't help most startups, and for a brutal (but probably true) reason: Most startups aren't that great. They're mediocre, which is why most of them flame out within five years.

Williams isn't unique in saying this. We recently wrote about a former Wal-Mart exec who is arguing the same point. ("You Don't Need Better Marketing, You Need to be a Better Company!"

Jeff Rosenblum makes a similar point in his documentary, The Naked Brand, arguing that customers now have all the power, and there's no way to trick them with misleading or manipulative advertising.

Here at HubSpot, that's music to our ears. That is, in fact, the main theme of the "Up and to the Right" channel: customers are in control, and there's no sense fighting that. Instead, listen to them, and get better. 

Then, and only then, you'll have the foundation of a great marketing campaign.

check out what's hot on inbound hub's homepage


Originally published Oct 31, 2013 3:00:00 PM, updated January 18 2023